It’s no secret that the tomato is a favorite summertime staple. Year after year, countless gardeners rely on this formidable and versatile fruit to mark the arrival of spring and then top off summer with a taste that is not only memorable but also irreplaceable. But the tomato is also thought to be one of the most difficult plants to grow. It truly doesn’t deserve that reputation. Yes, the tomato does perform differently than other vegetable crops. And yes, your growing region or zone may have something to do with how successful you will be. But becoming aware of the following common misconceptions will help set you on the right path to getting the great harvest you’re after.
1. “Tomato seedlings are fragile.”
They are small, perhaps, but they’re not fragile. Centuries ago, tomatoes were just sturdy weeds on a South American hillside before someone decided to eat one of the plant’s fruits and thought it could be food. These plants are far hardier than they are given credit for. So choose a seedling, select a sunny spot, and bury it deep. There’s no need to coddle it.
2. “The more sun, the better.”
Commercial tomato plants growing in fields that receive sunlight from sunrise to sunset are hybrids specially bred to thrive under those conditions. But not all tomatoes are built to withstand those conditions. Most tomatoes only need six to eight hours a day of full sun. I recommend planting in rows that run north-south, especially if your garden plot gets more than eight hours of sun per day. Doing this ensures that one side of the plant gets early sun and the other side gets later sun. This orientation also means that each side of your plant is spared blazing hot sun all day long. Sunscald can be a problem if ripening fruit is exposed to all-day sun.
Tomatoes ‘Miniboy’ in clay pot
3. “Growing tomatoes in pots is the same as growing them in the ground.”
No, it’s different. In some ways, it’s more challenging to grow tomatoes in pots, but in other ways, it’s far better. Soil in containers warms up quicker than ground soil, so the same variety can ripen up to two weeks earlier in a pot than it would in the ground. If you live in a cool zone with a short summer season, container growing is a great way for you to finally get a decent harvest. Container growing, however, does require more work. You’ll have to fertilize more (at least every 10 days because of sharper drainage) and water more. Mulch the top of the pot or cover the outside of the pot (burlap works well) to protect the root system from high heat. I also generally plant short-season tomatoes and small-fruiting varieties in containers because huge beefsteaks need optimal conditions for the entire summer season to produce well in a pot.
4. “Use only paste tomatoes for sauce.”
Large commercial companies use paste tomatoes, like ‘Roma’, to make sauce because those tomatoes produce heavily, ripen at the same time, and are easy to process. But great tomato flavor is generally not paramount among those tomatoes’ qualifications. Great-tasting tomatoes—regardless of type—make great sauce. These varieties may be more watery, so it can take longer to get the sauce consistency you want. And if you decide to remove the skins, it may be hard to process them (especially if you’re working with cherry tomatoes). But in the end, when you use amazing-tasting tomatoes, you’ll get an amazing-tasting sauce.
5. “Tomatoes need lots and lots of water.”
While water doesn’t cause problems directly, consistently soggy soil can encourage diseases. As the season progresses, your plants will look less vigorous (or look awful), and you’ll feel sorry for them. Resist the temptation to water more. At the end of the season, excess water is channeled into the developing fruit, and that water dilutes flavor. You should water your tomatoes deeply but infrequently. “Deeply” means soaking the root-ball each time you water. New plantings don’t require much time with the hose, but as the season progresses—and the roots expand—you’ll need to water longer. “Infrequently” means every four or five days. Your soil, site, and even your zone may require an adjustment to these guidelines.
6. “When the leaves turn yellow, fertilize.”
You should fertilize on a schedule, following the directions for the product you’re using. Tomatoes in the ground, in decent soil, shouldn’t need aggressive fertilizing to perform well. Some leaves on your plant will turn yellow as the season progresses, especially lower ones. The leaves that no longer get sun are not useful in producing food for the plant, so they’re sloughed off. That’s just how it goes. Early on, your plants will be gorgeous, fat, and green. As the season progresses, the temperatures rise; the plant gets larger; and, most important, the plant’s focus shifts from producing leaves and stems to fruiting. This new stress causes the plant to drop leaves and to look bad. More water and more fertilizer won’t fix this problem.
7. “Pruning is essential for great tomatoes.”
No, it’s not. You have a choice to make: Do you want (a) large, wide plants that may become a bit unruly and produce a lot of small fruit or (b) more manicured plants that have fewer but larger fruit? Your garden site or zone can help you with this decision. Are you growing where it’s hot? You may need the heavier leaf cover to protect developing fruit from the scalding sun. Are you growing at the seashore or in a cool area? Pinch at least a little so that more sun gets into the center of the plant and warms it up. Remember—you shouldn’t need to prune most determinate plants. Pinching is a big job, and as the season progresses, it’s often hard to tell what you should pinch and what you shouldn’t. Relax, and rest assured that you won’t have a doomed season if you go to the park with the kids instead of pinching all weekend.
8. “The fruit is ripe when it’s red.”
If this were true, how could you tell when a yellow tomato was ready to be eaten? The fruit is ripe when it has reached its true color (depending on the type) and it is softening. A hard fruit at the grocery store isn’t ready to eat, right? The same is true in the garden. The acids and sugars in tomatoes are, in fact, perfectly balanced and fully flavored just before the fruit goes bad. If critters are a problem in your garden, pick the fruit as it breaks (when the true color begins to show), and let it rest in a cool part of your kitchen or pantry. It will flavor up just fine.
How to plant them at the right depth
The best way to ensure that your tomatoes get off to a good start is by amending your soil and then planting the seedlings at the correct depth. Here are two ways to do it.
1. Dig a hole deep enough so that only 3 to 4 inches of the plant is above the soil surface. Pinch off any leaves that will be buried. If you’ve purchased a leggy seedling, you may have 8 or more inches of stem underground. This is not a bad thing. All of the small hairs along the stem will turn into roots, making your plant sturdier in no time at all.
2. Dig a trench, and lay the new seedling on its side, bending the uppermost 3 to 4 inches of the plant above the soil surface and then burying the rest. Soil near the surface will be warmer and will foster quicker growth. This is a good approach for gardeners in the Midwest or Northeast (or in any zone with intense winters).